Issue Date: October 8, 2007
China's Returnees And Retainees
In his editorial "China's Returnees," Rudy Baum observes that those young people who came from China as students, completed their degrees, and gained industrial experience in the U.S. are now returning to China, "helping advance drug discovery to world-class status and making their fortunes in the bargain (C&EN, May 28, page 5)." Concerned about the trend of losing talent, he contends: "The U.S. can no longer take for granted that it can attract and retain scientific talent, even if we do relax ill-conceived barriers to immigration."
The policy change from the debate is yet to be felt, while "the leveling effect" described by writer Thomas L. Friedman continues to ripple through the chemical sector.
Paradoxically, as the "returnees" trend appears to gain momentum, I see more "retainees" as well. I have observed that many chemists-turned-businessmen of Chinese origin decide to continue thriving in the U.S. These are usually midcareer folks with families residing in the U.S. They are more tempted by the business environment and the rules of commerce. Although many do not receive venture-capital funding, hard work and technical competence in a relatively low-risk industry seem to spell success.
The businesses are normally focused on providing technological services such as custom synthesis, intermediates supply, and pharmaceuticals analysis. Many businesses are about 10 years old and now enjoy organic growth that contributes to the overall well-being of the economy. I've also observed a gradual increase of such companies, as evident at recent ACS and other trade shows. As more chemists become professionally mature, this trend may continue.
Admittedly, the definition of returnees and retainees has been blurred. The returnees representing U.S.-based companies operate overseas and provide a bridge to support the global operations of the parent companies. In the end, it is the parent businesses and local communities (presumably) that benefit from having retained their services in different geographic sites. On the other hand, the retainees, under pressure to stay competitive, have "returned" to their home country, often intermittently, to search for more affordable materials and other opportunities.
The significance of returnees and retainees should not be overlooked. Being technically, socially, and culturally experienced, they play critical roles in interfacing the engagement of the two nations to much deeper levels that will be beneficial to us all.
Silver Spring, Md.
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